How many zeros in…?

How many zeros are in Rs. 90,000 crore? (A crore equals 10 million.)

I only ask because that’s how much a certain Mr. Hassan Ali Khan owes the Indian government in tax arrears. Which apparently isn’t possible to recover:

[…] the recovery is not possible though all known immovable and move-able assets belonging to the group have been attached,” the Finance Ministry said […]

Further, it informed, the attached assets are inadequate to recover the entire dues.

Amazing.

But wait, it gets better. The total arrears are of the order of Rs. 2.48 lakh crore, most of which pertains to money laundering.

I guess the positive is that at least they caught this guy? How many others like him who haven’t been caught?

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Fire at Stephen Court, Kolkata

Again. And Again.

It’s a tragedy. Lives are lost, as is property, as are landmarks and history. But does anyone care [1,2]?

This is very similar to the annual rainy season in Kolkata, where any significant rain leads to water logging, and pollution of the standard sources of drinking water (the drains overflow and mix). And every year, we get two statements from the Municipal Corporation [Rains 2007, Rains 2008]:

1. Things like this happen when there is major rain.

2. Next year will be better.

And yet we have not learnt, we have not implemented, we have not prepared.

It is identical in the case of these fires. For this latest fire at Stephen Court, the Minister of Fire and Emergency Services went so far as to say:

“It takes one hour to cover a 15 km journey, that is why the delay took place in the fire tenders reaching there.”

And that is a valid excuse, one that can be accepted? 15 km a fire truck has to travel, to reach a locality that is as busy as it is crowded, when there is a major fire?

And how are the buildings themselves equipped to handle a fire emergency? Evacuation routes and procedures? Emergency protocols? Fire extinguishers in the buildings? Fire codes, and they being adhered to? Does it help to have a wad of currency notes ready if a building does not adhere to protocols? Does the Minister of Fire and Emergency Services get asked questions about these?

And then we have the babus being more concerned about forms in triplicate and their chairs being oiled enough, than doing actual work. 4 days into the Burrabazar fire, The Telegraph had this to say (link at the beginning of this post):

Army officers said they were allowed their own source of water only this afternoon after over two days of non-cooperation by fire officials.

I am certain the Stephen House fire will have a similar handling. Excuses, reasons, a few arrests now that it will be shown that fire codes were not adhered to, and life will be back to normal. Until the next fire, when the cycle will run again.

It is our lives that are in danger, our buildings, our history, and our city. As much as it is the government’s responsibility, it is also our own, to make sure that everything is in order. The government itself is not forced down our throats; it is an elected government that we brought (and kept) to power.

We are great at making excuses, we at great at pointing fingers; we are terrible at doing anything about it.

More fun quotes from the Fire Minister (link at beginning of post):

“… From this incident, I have learnt a lesson: ladders should be kept in and around Esplanade to speed up the process of firefighting,”

The minister flaunted another lesson: carpets cannot save people forced to jump from highrises. So, the government is “planning” to purchase nets. “Right now, we have carpets but those cannot save a man from getting injuries,” he said.

Amazing, the amount he has learnt from just one incident, no?

Typical West Bengal

There is a law in West Bengal whereby it is illegal to use loudspeakers in public places during school board exams. (It is another matter that the law only protects students of the State Education Board, not those of other Central Education Boards whose national exams fall on different dates.) In risk of digressing slightly from the topic, the other funny thing about this situation is that local political parties, to gain ‘support’ from local people, set up booths during this exam time at busy intersections, and try keeping the traffic running smoothly for the benefit of the examinees – by blaring their instructions over a loudspeaker.

Anyway. The law exists. And here’s what the Chief Minister does, flanked by his Information and Cultural Affairs Ministry, and his own police department – whose job (I think) is to protect the law of the land – in blatant violation of the loudspeaker law.

Typical West Bengal, no?

P.S.: It’s election time, and being the eternal optimist that I am, I am hoping once again for sanity in West Bengal. Does anyone have news? I haven’t got any yet.

Of ‘No Smoking’ Laws

This post I had referred to, in an earlier post. And said that I had more to say about it.

What caught me was Suchismita’s attitude towards the ‘no smoking in public places’ law that the Health Minister recently passed. Here’s what she says:

First there was Ramadoss that acted the big daddy and barred smoking in “public places” without explaining what public places he was talking about. So now because of one whim Doss Almighty had one day over tea, people like you and me are looking for corners where we can smoke. We are lepers you see, we have to be ostracized because consideration is reserved for people who turn their pretty noses up when they smell cigarettes half a mile away.

Hm. Yes, the guy messed up, in not defining ‘Public Place’ sharply enough. He has moreover acted in very weird ways before, on the subject of smoking, and on which I have commented earlier.

And yet, I do not agree that the law is unfair.

Smoking is a personal choice, as is anything else that we choose to indulge in. And yet, that choice, that freedom, extends only as long as we do not infringe on someone else’s choice, and that person’s freedom! You, Suchismita, are free to indulge in smoking, but are not free to force others to breathe in the toxic gases that you are contributing to the air that they breathe!

Suchismita, whatever your limits are on things that you enjoy indulging in / have tried / don’t mind seeing around you, I am sure you have your own upper limits too. Would you feel very comfortable if another person indulged in something that was beyond your upper limit of tolerance, and moreover forced you to be a passive participant in that act?

I think not.

Conflicting ideas

This article I read quite a while back. I was outraged at the idea, for a number of reasons, decided I wanted to write about it, and how it wasn’t the right thing to do, and wanted to wonder how and why someone from an IIM – that gives the person’s views some prestige, doesn’t it? – would put forward such an article.

Well, I never really got down to it, and now the work has been done for me. Well, at least the first part about the whys and hows of the idea being a bad one. Here: go read. It’s an excellent post on why India should really refrain from having military strikes in Pakistan.

More, while discussing the situation, the author appreciates the role that the PM, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the Foreign Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee have played. In particular, he writes about the PM:

I’m glad the current administration is low on posturing and high on procedure. That’s what you get when policy wonks are in charge rather than poets. No charisma at all, little to appeal to the media or the public at large, but in the end more effective in making India’s case to the world. I can’t bear to watch Manmohan Singh speak for more than two minutes, but there’s no man I would rather have at India’s helm during the current global financial crisis.

Contrast the above with the following, from this blog post:

It would be good if Shourie were the PM. The man is smart, courageous, ethical, and has the national interest at heart. Which is more than you can say about Shri Manmohan Singh. I wish India had good political leadership but if wishes were horses . . .

My idea has more or less been that Dr Singh has more positives than negatives as PM. Of course, there’s a lot that I don’t know, but what has Dr Singh done (or not done) to deserve the above comment?

Someone, please enlighten me.

From Bankura to MIT!!

Anshuman Panda, from a remote village in West Bengal, is headed to MIT, after cracking a perfect SAT score. Nice to hear, also, that the West Bengal government has taken upon itself to fund his travel and initial expenses once he is here. That’s one use of tax-payers’ money that no one will begrudge, I am sure.

Anshuman is also receiving well needed advice from an MIT alumnus, WB Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta. There’s one bit that I loved the most. Says Dr Dasgupta, ‘Don’t take more than four courses at a time!!’. Yes, very important advice, that!

On a related note, check this post. More than the post itself, check out the comments section, which has been graced by the man of the moment himself.

Best of Luck, Anshuman.

West Bengal at its best (worst)?

This is stupid. Tragic. Idiotic. Foolhardy.

The Calcutta High Court had mandated that Autorickshaws running 2-stroke engines should be removed from the roads, to reduce pollution (the older Autos are 2-stroke, almost 60000 in number).

Guess how the political brass, and the government backed trade union (CITU), and even the opposition to the government reacted.

Did you guess right?

(This is not the first such instance. I wonder if the Calcutta High Court remembers a provision called ‘Comtempt of Court’, which is punishable under the Indian Penal Code.)

Of an overefficient (overzealous?) Indian Railways… (Updated)

The Railway Ministry has hit a brainwave: of introducing Side-Middle Berths in their trains – an idea that I am not sure will find favor even in the long run. It’s just a case of overcramping the space!!

Any bets on when the middle berth goes back out the door?

(Link via Such Is Life – from this post, about which I have more things to say, but in a later post.)

Update: Interesting comments have come up from passengers who encountered the new system. See the comments on this post. (Well not the first few; you’ll find the interesting ones as you scroll down.)

Hm. Anyone wants to change the time frame that Suchismita (see comment on this post) put forward (one year) for the middle berth to be yanked back out?

ID for a bicycle?

I came across this today: the UP government, in a bid to curb terrorist activities, has decided that buying a bicycle will involve the same ID checks as getting a new cell phone connection.

Isn’t this stretching it a bit too far?

Three thoughts come to mind:

1. Something about bolting horses on the one hand (how many times does a terrorist outfit use a modus operandi that has been used before?), and

2. Extreme paranoia on the other (will they require ID for childrens’ bicycles too? Surely, if bombs can be packed on an adult bicycle, so can it be done on a childrens’ bicycle?).

3. Something about planning for scenarios. What happens if a bomber hires a cycle rickshaw, puts his ‘stuff’ on it, and asks the driver to wait while he ‘gets’ something important? How do you plan for that?

Wow. I wonder how far things like this will be stretched without looking at the practicalities.

Oh Kolkata!

Or rather, oh West Bengal. Bengal’s woes continue, and I wonder (do I really, now?) how much of it has to do with the ‘system’ in place, and the contacts that people who should be ‘responsible’ manage to use for their own good.

We’d been wondering in our last days at Kolkata at how some of the newer buses had different designs from what we had grown used to seeing for the past twenty-odd years. Turns out there was actually a directive to make the said changes! Yet, only some of the newer buses actually had those changes, not the rest of them.

There was a mishap recently on a major Kolkata roadway where a private bus ran off the road, and where 21 people were killed, and around 20 more injured. Putting aside the fact that the driver was on a ‘race’ with another vehicle, there are other issues too. It emerges that some of the changes in design, that were not made in the bus in the accident, actually hampered rescue operations.

And what do the people in charge have to say about that? Here goes:

Says the Times of India (scroll down to the section titled Rescue was hampered by window bars’ ):

“Local people engaged in the rescue operation said things would have been a lot different had there been no iron bars on the windows. Private buses in the city still have windows bound by iron rods that hinder rescue operations during emergency.

“We had to use shovels and axes to break the rods. A lot of time was wasted. If the windows were not bound, we could have saved many more lives,” said Swapan Haldar of Kestopur.

Though all public transport in the country has to abide by central safety norms, buses in Kolkata still have barricaded windows.

A circular in 2003 had instructed all private buses to convert to the two-by-two sitting arrangement as well as do away with grilles. The deadline for such conversion was 2004. PVD (Public Vehicles Department) and RTA (Regional Transport Authority) officials admitted that there has been leniency in taking action against errant vehicles.”

Says the Additional Director (technical), Public Vehicles Department:

“The grilles were introduced to rein in unruly passengers. The new BS III buses do not have these barricades.”

Well, what about the older buses, which actually form a major portion of the vehicles on the road? Never mind. To continue,

Says RTA Deputy Chairman:

“… the vigil on emergency exits has not been strict. The Kestopur incident should work as an eye-opener. We will definitely take up the issue.”

Definitely, eh? And what were you doing for the past four years?

Says President of Bengal Bus Syndicate (essentially the bus owners’ union):

“It is not possible for all owners to convert the models of the old buses. But we will definitely take up the issue to do away with the iron grilles at the meeting on April 11,”

Not possible??? How so? I wonder if such a logic would work anywhere else. Why won’t you make your buses so as to adhere to safety directions? ‘Coz we can’t afford it. An accident once in a while? So what, but we can’t afford to be safe!

And there’s that ‘definitely’ word again. And once more, as in the previous case, is a promise to ‘take up the issue’. Not do something, no, they can’t promise that they’ll do something, but they will ‘take up the issue’.

Ours is supposed to be a democracy, right? In fact, the world’s largest one. I wonder who it is that is supposed to raise his voice. And raise his voice against who? When the people in charge, including the Assistant Technical Director and Deputy Chairman of two government agencies, can make these statements in their formal capacities, where does it lead us?